What does swollen legs mean?
Talking about swollen legs in a generic way is improper, because there are many types of leg swelling : swelling, for example, can affect both legs or even just one; the swelling in one leg could be asymmetrical, therefore more accentuated on one side; the swelling can only develop on a specific part of the leg.
So first of all we need to consider the type and development of the swelling , whether it is painful or not and how long it has been present, to understand its causes and seek the right treatment.
Where could leg swelling be coming from?
Swollen legs are often caused by excess fluid trapped in the body's tissues. This problem is called edema . Although edema affects any part of the body, it is most noticeable in the hands, arms, feet, ankles and legs.
What are the symptoms of swollen legs?
Even though leg swelling is already a symptom on its own, legs can be swollen in several ways:
- Swelling unilateral or bilateral. Oedema is usually symmetrical, so it occurs on both sides of the leg. If the swelling is one-sided, it's probably due to a problem affecting a particular part of that leg.
- Swelling in a specific area or generalised. Swelling around the joints is usually caused by injury or a form of arthritis. Swelling in specific areas of the skin can be caused by allergies or infections. Swelling around the back of the heel suggests an Achilles tendon problem, etc. Generalized swelling, especially if on both sides, is probably oedema.
- Painful or painless swelling . Painful conditions include infections, deep vein thrombosis, injuries, and joint problems. Oedema is usually not painful, although the legs may ache and feel stiff.
- Swelling and redness of the skin. If the skin is red, this may be due to an infection (such as cellulitis) or inflammation (such as gout, rheumatoid arthritis, etc.).
- Subcutaneous swelling with fovea : this occurs when pressing a finger on the area affected by the swelling and then removing it, a hollow (fovea) is left in the skin.
In addition to swelling in the legs, there may be other associated symptoms, like for example:
- Shortness of breath started at the same time as leg swelling could suggest heart failure (if in both legs) or deep vein thrombosis (if in one leg) spreading to the lungs (pulmonary embolism).
- A high temperature (fever) is indicative of some type of infection.
- Fatigue could reveal a more general illness, such as anaemia or kidney problems.
- Diarrhea could be associated with an intestinal problem that affects the amount of proteins absorbed in the intestines.
- Jaundice is related to a liver problem, such as cirrhosis.
Read also: Tired and heavy legs: causes and remedies
Causes of swollen legs
What factors can cause leg swelling? There are several causes of swollen legs, from injuries to illnesses to the use of particular medications:
- Poor microcirculatory function (including capillaries, arterioles, metarterioles, and venules), which is usually treated with microcirculatory flavonoid supplements .
- Lymphoedema. Lymphoedema is an accumulation of excess fluid in the body's tissues, causing swelling. Lymphoedema can be due both to pathologies (diabetes, adenopathies, erysipelas, lymphangitis, lymphatic filariasis, bacterial cellulitis) and to surgical removal.
- Injuries. A foot or ankle injury can cause swelling in the ankle and lower leg. One of the most common causes of injury is a sprain.
- Infections . An infection in the feet, ankles, and lower legs can cause swelling in this area.
- Venous insufficiency. It occurs when blood cannot return to the heart. As a result, the veins no longer carry adequate amounts of blood from the legs to the heart. The blood thus becomes trapped in the soft tissues of the lower legs and ankles.
- Blood clot . A blood clot in the leg can cause the ankles and legs to swell. Blood clots tend to develop on one side of the limb.
- Joint problems caused by inflammation (gout, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriatic arthritis).
- Skin infections, such as collections of pus (abscesses) or cellulitis.
- Liver diseas . The liver produces albumin, a protein that prevents fluid from leaking out of blood vessels and into surrounding body tissues. A diseased liver does not produce enough albumin. Therefore, liver disease can cause fluid to pool in the legs, ankles, and feet.
- Nephropathy. The kidney's main role is to regulate the amount of water in the body and to balance the levels of salt and other minerals in the blood. Kidneys severely damaged by the disease are unable to filter blood effectively and excrete fluids and other waste products through urine, which can then build up within the body, in the lower legs and ankles.
- Deep vein thrombosis. It is a blood clot in deep blood vessels, most commonly affecting the calf. Possible causes include a long plane ride, illness, and a surgical operation.
- Side-Effects of Drugs. In some cases, medications can make your ankles or legs swell. Among these medications are estrogen, steroids, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, diabetes drugs.
- Skin reactions, for example an allergy to a bite or a sting or a medicine.
- Bone infection (osteomyelitis).
Swollen legs during pregnancy
Swelling in the feet, ankles and legs is normal during pregnancy. Swelling can obviously get worse if a woman is on her feet all day.
However, sudden or severe swelling in the legs, ankles or feet could be a sign of preeclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy, which can put the health of both the woman and the fetus at risk.
How to prevent swollen legs
In some cases, making some lifestyle changes can help prevent swelling in your legs, or at least ease the problem. These lifestyle changes include:
- Frequent checks for bruises, cuts, and scrapes, especially if you are diabetic.
- Exercise regularly, especially walking, swimming or cycling.
- Eat a healthy diet that promotes heart, kidney and liver health.
- Avoid contact sports that can cause leg and ankle injuries.
- Do not cross your legs or ankles while sitting.
- Stretch your legs frequently while sitting.
- Wear comfortable shoes.
- Do not wear socks that are tight around your ankles or calves.
Swelling of the legs: cures and treatments
Treatments and cures for swollen legs first require knowing the root cause. Your doctor will ask you for some information, for example:
- What parts of your legs tend to swell?
- Does it happen often or at particular times of the day?
- What improves and what makes swelling worse?
- What other symptoms do you have?
Common therapies for swollen legs include:
- Diuretics : they help your body release excess fluid in the urine.
- Physiotherapy and/or massage .
- Compression stockings : These help prevent swelling from recurring. Ideally, swelling should be reduced before being measured for compression stockings.
- Refreshing leg gel that helps get immediate relief.
Swollen legs: when to go to the doctor
See a doctor right away when any of the following conditions occur:
- Sudden or unexplained swelling in the legs.
- Additional symptoms, including shortness of breath, fever and chest pain or other warning signs of a blood clot in the lung or a heart condition.
- Fainting or dizziness.
- The swollen area is red or warm to the touch.
Diuretic foods for swollen legs
There are many foods, drinks, herbs and spices that act as natural diuretics:
- Herbs and spices such as parsley, garlic, dill, ginger, coriander, basil, dandelion, juniper, hawthorn, mulberry, black cumin, nettle, burdock, safflower, fenugreek, chicory and thyme.
- Fruits and vegetables such as watercress, pineapple, lemon, cucumber, squash, carrot, fig, alfalfa, cherry, pomegranate, tomato, corn, onion, cabbage, artichoke, cantaloupe, apple, blackcurrant, blueberry, and avocado.
- Legumes and cereals such as barley and chickpeas.
- Nuts and seeds such as pumpkin seeds, oatmeal, pistachio and walnuts.
Many of these products can be made into diuretic drinks. Dandelion and burdock drinks, chicory coffee and nettle tea are sold in supermarkets.
However, it is necessary to consult a doctor first if you want to follow a diet rich in diuretic foods to reduce leg oedema. Not all foods are suitable for everyone, and many can safely be eaten only in limited quantities.
Some diuretic products are inappropriate during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Others are not suitable for people predisposed to dermatitis or who have gastrointestinal problems, high blood pressure or asthma.
Foods that can cause swollen legs
There are also some foods that cause oedema. For example, there may be a sudden reaction to one or more of the major food allergens: cow's milk, eggs, fish, peanuts, shellfish, soy, tree nuts and wheat. This reaction is called angioedema.
In this case, leg swelling is associated with swelling in other areas of the body, including the eyes, lips, face, and even the throat. This reaction is known as anaphylaxis and can be associated with a rash, nausea, and difficulty breathing.
If these conditions occur, an allergist or immunologist should be consulted to diagnose the problem and prescribe an appropriate diet, which may include, for example, eliminating major suspected food allergens, as well as eating foods rich in B vitamins and iron, such as dark leafy greens:
- Eat foods rich in antioxidants, such as blueberries, cherries and tomatoes.
- Eliminate refined and processed foods, such as white bread, sugar, cookies and crackers.
- Choose lean meats, such as fish and chicken breast for protein, rather than red meat.
- Choose healthy cooking oils, such as olive oil.
- Limit the consumption of alcohol and tobacco.
Recommended exercises to relieve the discomfort of swollen legs
- Lift your legs . Elevating the feet above the heart to reverse the flow of fluids is the first line of defense for swollen legs. Place your feet on the floor, stretch, lift your right leg, then return to the starting position. Repeat the operation with the left leg and alternate the exercise 20-30 times.
- Rotate your ankles . Swollen legs often worsen around the calves, ankles, and feet, where gravity causes fluid to collect. Rotating your ankles can help get some of that fluid moving.
- Bend your legs . While lying down, bring one knee to your chest and then straighten your leg. Keep the other leg straight to take the pressure off your back. Once the exercises with one leg are over, switch to the other leg.